Change is inevitable. If we embrace it we win; resist it, we lose

Will Australia’s future over the next 40 years be bright or pretty ordinary? It could go either way, depending on how we respond to the challenges facing us. So what do we have to do to rise to the occasion?

The challenges, choices and likely consequence we face are spelt out in the report, Australian National Outlook 2019, produced by the CSIRO in consultation with 50 leaders from companies, universities and non-profits. The group was chaired by Dr Ken Henry, former Treasury secretary, and David Thodey, former boss of Telstra.

Illustration: Matt DavidsonCredit:

The report identifies six main challenges we face between now and 2060. First is the rise of Asia and the way it is shifting the geopolitical and economic landscape.

Asia’s middle class is growing rapidly, but unless we improve our ability to compete and also diversify our exports, we risk missing out on this opportunity and will be vulnerable to external shocks.

Next is the challenge of technological change, such as artificial intelligence, automation and biotechnology, which is transforming existing industries and changing the skills required for high-quality jobs.

Third challenge is climate change, the environment and loss of biodiversity. These pose a significant economic, environmental and social threat to the world and to us. We could be on a path to 4 degrees global warming by the end of the century unless significant action is taken.

Then there’s the demographic challenge: at current growth rates Australia’s population may approach 41 million by 2060, with Sydney and Melbourne housing 8 to 9 million people each. At the same time, ageing means the population’s rate of participation in the workforce could drop from 66 per cent to 60 per cent. (I don’t accept that such a rate of population growth is either inevitable or desirable.)

City density or urban sprawl?Credit:The Age

The fifth challenge is that trust in governments, businesses, other organisations and the media has declined. Without a lot of trust, it will be much harder to agree on the often-tough measures needed to respond to all these challenges.

Finally, measures of social cohesion have fallen in the past decade, with many Australians feeling left behind. Inequality, financial stress, slow wage growth and poor housing affordability may be contributing to this.

The report develops two plausible but opposite scenarios of how things may develop over the next 40 years. The “slow decline” scenario is the muddle-through future, in which we resist change for as long as we can. In the “outlook vision” scenario we agree to bite the bullet, resist the lobbying of declining industries, make the needed policy changes and exploit the benefits of new technology and trading opportunities.

As the driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of planetary warming.Credit:Dean Sewell

Under the low-road scenario, real gross domestic product grows at an average rate of 2.1 per cent a year, whereas under the high-road scenario it grows by 2.8 per cent. This would cause average real growth per person to be 39 per cent higher than under the low-road.

Real wages would be 90 per cent higher in 2060 than today, compared with 40 per cent higher under the low-road.

The low-road approach would allow cities to continue to sprawl, whereas the high-road would involve increasing the density of cities by about 75 per cent compared with today. This would keep our cities highly liveable.

Urban congestion could be reduced by higher density. Vehicle kilometres per person would fall by less than 25 per cent under the low-road, compared with up to 45 per cent under the high-road.

Net carbon emissions would fall by only 11 per cent under the low-road, with total energy use increasing by 61 per cent on 2016 levels, and only a modest improvement in energy productivity (efficiency).

By contrast, net zero emissions would be reached by 2050 under the high-road, with a doubling of energy productivity per unit of GDP and total energy use increasing by less than 45 per cent.

Whereas returns to landowners would increase by about $18 billion a year under the low-road, they’d increase by up to $84 billion a year under the high-road.

There’d be minimal environmental planting in 2060 under the low-road, but between 11 to 20 million hectares under the high-road, accounting for up to a quarter of intensive agricultural land. This “carbon forestry” explains why net zero emissions could be achieved without significant effect on economic growth.

More biodiverse plantings and better land management could help restore our ecosystems. And low-emission, low-cost sources of energy could even become a source of comparative advantage for us, with exports of hydrogen and high-voltage direct-current power.

Trouble is, a public that’s willing to re-elect the reactionary Morrison government seems more likely to settle for the low-road than strive for the best we could be.

The report says we need to achieve five key shifts to get us on to the high road. First, Industry. We need to allow a change in the structure of our industry, by increasing the adoption of new technology and so increasing productivity. We need to invest in the skills of our workers to keep their labour globally competitive and ready for the technology-enabled jobs of the future.

Second, urban sprawl. We need to plan for higher-density, multicentred and well-connected capital cities to reduce sprawl and congestion. We need to reform land-use zoning, so diverse high-quality housing options bring people closer to jobs, services and amenities. We must invest in transport infrastructure, including mass-transit, autonomous vehicles and "active transit", such as walking and cycling.

Third, energy. We must manage the shift to renewable energy, which will be driven by declining technology costs for generation, storage and grid support. We need to improve energy productivity using new technology to reduce the waste of power by households and industry.

Fourth, land. We need to use digital and genomic technology to improve food technology and to participate in new agricultural environmental markets to capitalise on our unique opportunities in global carbon markets. This will help to maintain, restore and invest in biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Finally, culture. We need to rebuild trust, encourage a healthy culture of risk-taking and deal with the social and environmental costs of reform policies.

Trouble is, a public that’s willing to re-elect the reactionary Morrison government seems more likely to settle for the low-road than strive for the best we could be.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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